Tag Archives: Lean Startup

It’s OK to build things

So much of the writing for startup founders these days focuses on Customer Development / Lean Startup: prove your market before you spend a lot of energy building a product. I agree with those principles and even started a column in Visual Studio Magazine primarily to discuss them further. These are Good Things.

But if all you want do is build things – THAT’S FINE, TOO. Just be honest with yourself and recognize you are taking a different path. There are lots of great ways to build things that don’t involve Lean Startup:

  • Build something small – Actually, Lean Startup doesn’t say you can’t build anything – it just says you should build the minimal amount practical to learn something – to prove or disprove a hypothesis. If you have a business idea, and you can whip up a mobile app or basic website to implement it in a weekend, then go for it! If nobody else but you likes it, who cares? You only spent a weekend on it. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback, you can make changes and put it out there again next weekend. Being a good hacker is a great quality for any startup founder, especially if you’re willing to ship early and often.
  • Build something slowlyMichael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe, is a proud advocate of the classic idea to “scratch your own itch.” He did it with Nozbe, and it has worked out very well for him (I interviewed him here). Recognize, though, that this might take you longer than using Lean Startup, because you are making a lot of effort to satisfy yourself first. It took Michael 2 years before he was willing to show Nozbe to any potential customers. If you are super quality-obsessed, this might be a good approach for you … but you better be patient and have the ability to stay focused for a long time without promise of return.
  • Build something free – take Audacity for example. I spend a few hours every week using this fine tool. It’s free – I’ve used various paid tools, but I simply prefer this one (at least for podcasts – it’s crazy simple for voice editing). I don’t know what motivated its creators, but for whatever reason, they decided it was more important for them to build a great piece of software than to build a software company. That’s a perfectly reasonable choice, and the world is a better place for having Audacity in it. You could do something similar (BTW, I also use the donation-ware Levelator and the for-pay GoldWave in my podcast production activities. They all rock at what they do.)
  • Build something at work – you don’t have to create a startup to build your own software. That’s what work is for! Whether you work for a huge company or a startup that someone else created, you can be paid to build cool stuff without ever having to take financial risk yourself. If all you want to do is build cool stuff, then consider finding a job that will pay you to build cool stuff – there are plenty of them out there.
  • Build something for your community – if you don’t want – or are not quite ready – to build a startup but still want to create something brand new and leave your mark on the world, then consider finding a worthy project in your (geographic or thematic) community, and build something useful and cool for them. There are even organizations dedicated to connecting creative people like you with worthy causes – check out GiveCamp, for example.
  • Build something risky – yesterday, I mentioned that I have the deep-down feeling that I have great vision, “just like Steve Jobs.” I think most entrepreneurs feel that way. And if I have that kind of vision, surely I don’t need to do Lean Startup, right? Well … whether or not I have that kind of vision, I don’t have Steve Jobs’s guts, timing, or post-first-stint-at-Apple financial resources. Vision alone doesn’t ensure success, but it certainly helps. If you DO have the guts and financial resources and suspect you have the timing to succeed by doggedly pursuing your awesome vision until you realize it … then by all means, go for it. Just realize that for every Steve Jobs that succeeds, there must be thousands who fail (and it took Steve Jobs a few tries to work past some failures, too). In my opinion it is LIKELY you will fail if you try to copy the Steve Jobs approach to business.

I’ve got a list of more than twenty startup ideas – some of them completely suck, I’m sure, but there might be a couple of good ones in there. At the moment, I am favoring ideas that REQUIRE me to do Lean Startup/Customer Development, because I want the experience of doing that right now. I need the practice. But there might be a weekend pretty soon where I just want to code something, and then I might pause and work on a different idea that fits into one of the categories above.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Am I full of it?

Ah, but that first “yes” is glorious

Yesterday, I mentioned how hard Lean Startup can be in practice. It’s one thing to have the abstract knowledge of what to do – it’s quite another to do it. It sounds so simple to find ten people who will buy your product before building it. But that doesn’t say anything about the emotions you’ll experience when you talk to people who won’t buy you’re product. “It’s a great idea, but it’s not for me” is longhand for “no.”

Undeterred, I continued to make my pitch to potential customers. At lunch with some friends today, I got one of them to a maybe – he would have purchased it 3 months ago, but his situation doesn’t warrant it today. If his situation warrants it again next month, he would strongly consider it.

And then I found the right customer – one who said “YES! I want that!”

Oh … my … GOD!

If all those initial no’s had the familiar sting of rejection, that first yes was simply AWESOME. I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight because I’ll be digesting some of the specifics I learned from these conversations – and because now I have a specific customer to think about – what would it take to please Tom?

I still have only one person who said they would pay – I need TEN. I’m going to learn different things from all of them, but hopefully I will see patterns emerge that inform the next step in this journey.

One really important detail I learned today is the TYPE of customer who is perfect: account execs. My perfect customer (at least based upon the first one that I’ve found) has the title of Account Exec. That gives me a useful new focus for Customer Development. Before I was just talking to anyone in business. Now I know a specific type of businessperson to focus on – that should make finding nine more customers easier (we’ll see).

Sorry to be so abstract about my idea. It’s not because I’m secretive – I just don’t want encouragement (on the specific idea) from my non-customer friends at the moment. I need the discipline of finding ten real customers before I move on to the next stage. For me, that stage will be creating a 30-second marketing video, as VC Dave described. I COULD do that now, but again, I think I would get too much encouragement from friends who wouldn’t actually be willing to pay – I want some buzz, sure, but one negative of this particular product idea is that it’s expensive compared to alternatives (due to a higher cost structure). Once I get ten people willing to pull out their wallets for my product, then I’ll let you know what it is and get all that wonderful encouragement (and criticism).

Before you can get to ten, you have to get to one. That first one is glorious … Tom, you’ll always hold a special place in my heart. Smile with tongue out

The second installment of my Startup 101 column in Visual Studio Magazine came out today, and it’s on this very subject – talking to customers. Let me know what you think.

Have a question about your startup or want to practice your pitch? Register for the next Smart Bear Live with Jason Cohen!

Tough medicine

For the last couple of years, I’ve been counseling every startup founder I meet to practice Lean Startup principles – Get out of the building! Talk to customers!

Of course, that whole time, I’ve been safely ensconced in a corporate job … easy for me to tell others what to do.

Lately I’ve been getting the entrepreneurial bug myself again, and I’ve been exploring a few different ideas. You know what I’ve discovered? Doing it the “right” way kinda sucks! Or at least, it’s really HARD. I want to build things. I want to trust my vision and do things the Steve Jobs way – deep down in my heart, I know I’m one in a trillion, just like him (don’t you feel the same way?). But here’s the thing … I’m not willing to BET on that. So I’m taking the same medicine I recommend to everyone else and doing my Customer Development.

It’s really a bummer when you talk to five people about an idea and none of them would buy it. It still feels like rejection. However, I’m learning about the pain points those people actually DO have. I also realize I might not have found the right people to talk to yet. It’s forcing me to be more precise in thinking about who my ideal customer is. I would have to reach a lot of them after I build – it’s a lot cheaper to reach a few now. And if I can’t find ten people who would pay for my idea? Whew – good thing I didn’t waste my energy coding.

Building a startup is like solving a puzzle. There are so many different pieces you have to fit together. I love that. I love the challenge of figuring out a business model and a compelling value proposition. I love BUILDING things. But amazingly enough, sometimes the way to win is by deciding you can’t solve a particular puzzle before expending too much energy on it.

And then you simply move on to the next one.